China’s economic machinery has stepped off the gas, and its recent double-figured annual growth rates today seem unattainable.
Yet, the latest Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) Global Connections Report on China (February 2013) forecasts the economy gathering pace: “Chinese exports will increasingly head to rapidly growing markets in developing economies, as the industrialized nations remain subdued.” The report sees a shift to more sophisticated industries, such as the chemical sector, by 2030.
By contrast, economist George Magnus, author of
The Age of Aging: How Demographics are Changing the Global Economy and Our World (Wiley, 2009), believes China is on the road to becoming a ‘normal’ country, and will face conventional and traditional economic issues and challenges that could hog-tie further economic growth. The man widely acknowledged with having identified the trigger points leading to the 2008 financial crisis suggests significant changes to China’s economic model are needed to retain highs and stabilize growth. “China requires extensive political reform, more robust institutions and a tilt in the role of the state towards supporting enterprise.”
Magnus believes a lot of the things that have made China special in the last 10 to 20 years no longer exist, or are changing. Referencing WTO membership, high-school enrollment and accomplishing rural-to-urban labor transfer as one-off chances, the renowned economist sees the economy in danger of becoming trapped.
China’s per capita income will rise very quickly by the end of this decade to a figure where upper middle-income countries tend to get stuck – unless it can reform and develop. New strategies and processes are needed to avoid this so-called Middle Income Trap. The biggest challenge is moving from resource-driven growth that is dependent on cheap labor and capital to growth based on high productivity and innovation. This requires investments in infrastructure and a skilled workforce.
Longer life, fewer children: shifting demographics signal the end of cheap Chinese labor. © Action Press
Yet, like most European and Asian countries, China is experiencing major demographic changes. As life expectancy increases and birthrates decline, the working population is either growing slowly or shrinking. According to recent figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s working age population fell for the first time ever in 2012, from 1.3 billion to 1.0 billion workers. Not a large drop in official numbers, but as the demand for skilled workers increases, cheap labor will be in short supply. This in turn will begin to erode China’s competitive edge.
“China’s manufacturing strategies will have to get smarter,” says Magnus. Returning to production at home, which had been previously offshored to low-wage countries, would save on costs generated from issues such as quality, logistics and brand capital. Unless there is ongoing political reform and the provision of robust institutions, China will soon face the danger of falling behind its competitors.
Listen to the interview with George Magnus on the future of China